Certainty is a Feeling (and Cheat Code)

Certainty as an epistemic state is a lie.

A human being can never truly be certain about something, and most people have far higher confidence in their predictions than is warranted.

That said, certainty is very useful for tennis.

The feeling of being certain that a particular shot will work seems to increase the chance of that shot actually working. Likewise, the feeling of being very uncertain that a particular shot will work – preparing for the shot while nervous and second guessing yourself – appears to significantly decrease the chance of that shot working.

So what gives here?

If your certainty is wrong, why does it seem so useful for tennis?

The key here is to separate certainty the mental state from certainty the epistemic state. One cannot actually be certain in tennis, but one can certainly feel certain: any player who predicts an outcome with 100% probability is wrong, but a player who merely feels certain about something is simply manifesting a mental state that is very useful to human functioning.

Teasing out the Feeling from the Matter of Fact

In tennis, you want to feel certain that your shots will always work, even though, in reality, they won’t always work. This applies at both a micro level and a macro level.

You want to feel certain that you won’t miss, even though you will. You want to feel certain you’ll win the next point, even though it’s likely a toss up, and you want to feel certain that you’ll win the match, even though you’ll probably lose about half the matches you play (and if you don’t, find better competition).

Your goal is to cultivate a feeling, because this feeling will improve your play. While on court, your goal is not to objectively, accurately predict the outcome of what is going to happen. The fact that you’ll lose about half your matches is not useful information while playing.

An Example – Neutral Forehands

Image that you know, from your practice, that you can execute your deep, cross-court forehand at a frequency of 95/100. You’ve done many sets of 100 cross-court forehands, and you always make between 90-100 of them, typically only missing 4 or 5.

During a match, while trying to execute a cross-court forehand, that success-rate information is not useful. You’ve already selected the shot, you already know it’s the right shot to play. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether or not, this one particular time, you happen to miss.

Therefore, instead of paying any attention to the true odds of success, you want to feel certain that the shot is going to work, because that feeling of certainty will actually improve your success rate. If you feel uncertain, if you get nervous knowing that you’ll miss about 5% of the time, chances are you’ll miss far more than just that 5%.

Is this just lying to yourself?

It can be difficult to feel certain about a shot while simultaneously knowing that, factually, it is far from 100% accurate. The mismatch between belief and reality can create cognitive dissonance, which is distressing. The key to resolving this dissonance is to clearly separate:

  1. The feeling of certainty
  2. A true, verifiable belief of certainty

Technically, there exists no truly accurate expression of certainty; the mental state itself is always in err. It never maps to an outcome that is 100% likely, because such outcomes don’t exist. Certainty is merely a feeling which causes you to act a certain way.

Certainty exists to delude you into performing better.

In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, certainty was almost definitely very useful precisely when the outcome was very uncertain. Consider the East Asian sailors who first colonized Australia by braving the ocean in boats made of reeds. Don’t you think they had a “false” sense of the actual probability of completing that journey alive? Yet, because of their certainty (the mental state), they forged ahead, and today, Australia is a flourishing human colony. You are descendant from people who could selectively manifest very factually inaccurate confidence when they needed to.

Don’t worry that your feeling of certainty is an illusion; lots of your “beliefs” are. At its very core, certainty has always has been an illusion, from its very inception. It exists to delude you into performing better, often by calming you down or strengthening your resolve. Certainty is useful. That’s why it was selected for the past, that’s why it manifests in your brain today, and that’s why it’ll help your tennis tomorrow.

Still worried about lying to yourself?

Both for tennis and in general, I’d encourage you to adopt a relatively Machiavellian worldview with respect to your brain:

Treat your brain as a tool which you can use to accomplish your goals (like becoming better at tennis). Don’t limit your progress by trying to ensure your feelings are “true.” They’re just feelings. Instead, just try to manipulate your consciousness into the state that’s most useful to you.

In a domain like science or engineering, matching how you feel to the truth really is critically important, so if you’re in those areas, of course, be ruthless and question yourself constantly. In tennis, though, that’s not the case; the feeling of certainty helps our shots succeed, independent of reality, so use it liberally.

What if I just can’t feel certain?

Maybe you miss a lot. Maybe the memories are just too vivid. If you really can’t get yourself to feel certain on court, try this mental re-framing exercise:

Instead of being certain that your shot will work, be certain that your shot is the correct choice. Think of tennis like poker. If you you have a really bad hand, and every other time you bet like this, you have a really good hand, you must bluff. Of course, it might not work in this instance, but you can still be certain that it’s the correct play.

It’s not certainty of outcome, but rather certainty of process.

As you prepare to send your approach shot whistling into your opponent’s backhand corner, yes, you have a miss-rate, and yes, that miss-rate is nonzero. But given your practice, your strategy, and your execution to this point, you know this is the correct choice, even if it doesn’t happen to work on this particular shot.

“He always knows he’s going to win.”

A practice partner and I were recently discussing the mental side of tennis, and he mentioned a friend of his who has the best mental game he’s ever seen. The guy plays absolutely lights out on pressure points – you can’t even tell the score is close. How?

“He just knows he’s gonna win.”

But… but he’s not going to win, a lot of the time. That belief is false. How does he maintain it after losing a few times?

Your feeling of certainty doesn’t need to be connected to reality. The truth is, your feeling of certainty is not a belief, it’s merely a feeling, and that feeling itself is useful, epistemology be damned.

1 Comment

  1. Mike
    October 29, 2021

    Contra cheat code! Yes!


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